She tore through the bushes, not heeding the stinging thorns nor the branches that bit at her as she passed. A human. A human off the tracks, high in her territory. He had seen her. She had to run. Find a new place somewhere. Hide. She paused at the top of the gorge, smelling the wind and suppressing her instincts to return to the fold of the mountain. The ridges were exposed and ugly, all rock and cold air and hard sun. She pushed onwards, heading east, between the towns that surrounded the mountains. This was unfamiliar territory. Her footfalls slowed gradually as the panic diminished.
There was a metallic click and she collided with the ground. Pain blazed through her leg. She keened, gasping for breath as she sat up and twisted to see what was biting into her flesh. A leopard trap. Her hands sought out the teeth of the trap where they had sunk into her muscle. Blood seeped from the wounds. She fought the steel jaws until her fingers bled. Tears clouded her eyes. The sun beat upon her back. The soil was stained.
“Once we reach the ridges, the whole area is leopard territory,” Dr Thomas explained as he handed the paper map to Lennard. “We have a look-see, and if we don’t find anything, we can bed down there for the night. High and dry.”
Lennard studied the map and compared it to his field GPS, stumbling a little.
“Want me to stop so you can handle your gadget?”
Lennard grumbled and handed the map back to his supervisor, picking up the pace again.
“I can’t stop thinking about that wild person,” he said, partially to change the subject. His supervisor liked to rant long and hard about not relying on flimsy technology in the field and trusting one’s wits.
“What of it?”
“How can you be so stoic about this? She’s an untamed person, a feral child, a half-mythical beast few if any have ever seen before! Is she lonely? Can she speak at all?”
“I thought you didn’t want to do anything about her,” Dr Thomas grumbled. “At this rate you may as well change degrees and become an anthropologist.”
Lennard flushed and held his tongue.
The ridges were a bleak and beautiful landscape, all crevasses and rock ledges and caverns. It was here that the leopards slept and hunted hyrax and antelope.
Dr Thomas’ sharp eyes were quick to pick out the detail. “There’s something moving on the ground eastward of here,” he gestured. “Maybe a baboon.”
Lennard followed his supervisor’s gaze. “Can’t see a thing.”
“It’s gone still now. Probably just hyrax.”
They moved on. Lennard glanced down the drop on either side of the ridges periodically, choosing his footing carefully. Dr Thomas seemed unfazed by the precariousness of their path, humming tunelessly as they advanced along the ridges.
“Hear that?” Lennard stopped short. Dr Thomas complied and listened.
“I hear it. That scrabbling sound? You’ve got good ears.”
Lennard nodded. “Other side of these boulders. Could be that baboon you were talking about. Careful.”
Dr Thomas unstrapped his dart rifle before they diverted off their way around the boulders. They walked quietly, each footfall a calculated risk. Dr Thomas led the way, rifle relaxed at his side. They rounded the boulders and Dr Thomas came to a dead halt. Lennard walked into his pack and mumbled an apology, craning around to see what they had disturbed.
The woman was grounded. Her hands were clamped around the jaws of a steel trap enclosing her ankle. Fresh blood glistened on her hands and leg. She bared her teeth at the researchers, dragging herself as far away as she could.
“We won’t harm you.” Dr Thomas spoke quietly. “Stay calm and we’ll free you.”
The feral thing hissed and strained at the trap. Dr Thomas took a slow step forward, then another. Her movements took on a desperate quality as he approached and she started yelling wildly, lashing out with bloodied hands. He backed away and pointed his rifle at her.
“What are you doing?” Lennard demanded, moving to grab Dr Thomas’ shoulder.
“We can’t get near her. It’ll stress her too much,” Dr Thomas replied. “We have to dart her if we want to release her.”
“You’re going to shoot her?”
“You know it’s only a tranquilliser. Relax.”
Dr Thomas peered through the sights. He took the shot. The red dart struck home in the woman’s thigh. There was a frenzied scrabble and a yelp of pain. Lennard hated this part, where the terrified animal became weak and confused. He looked away as the sounds diminished and gradually stopped altogether.
“Give me a hand here,” Dr Thomas called as he approached the half-human and prodded her with the butt of his rifle to gauge her wakefulness. She snarled half-heartedly and managed to elicit a clink from the trap. He wedged his rifle between the metal jaws and levered it open.
“Damn poachers,” he growled, seeing the damage to her leg.
Lennard extricated her ankle from the jagged metal. Blood started to trickle freely from the wounds.
“First aid’s in the back pocket of my pack. And get the cord too. We’ll need to make some form of restraints if we want to take her down the mountain.”
Lennard looked up sharply, hand halfway to Dr Thomas’s pack.
“She needs a tetanus shot. And probably a few other things too, like stitches and a course of antibiotics,” Dr Thomas said impatiently. “Now get the kit.”
Lennard used bandages and iodine ointment to dress the wounds while Dr Thomas sprung the trap again and kept an eye on the woman’s wakefulness.
“If we try take her back tonight, it’ll be dark before we reach the valley,” Dr Thomas said. “We’ll have to keep her up here overnight. Maybe add another layer of bandages just to be sure it doesn’t bleed right through.”
“How are we going to manage it? Can we keep her sedated that long?”
Dr Thomas counted his tranquilliser darts. “Technically, yes. But it’ll use all my darts just to last until morning, and I’m thinking it would be best if she were sedated when we transport her, so we’ll need them then. We’ll have to let her be and hope she falls asleep before it wears off. It should take a while without a reversing agent.”
Lennard straightened and unwound a length of cord. “So…” He looked expectantly at Dr Thomas.
“Tie her wrists tight behind her, and then make a little lead to the stake of the trap,” Dr Thomas said. “Since it’s already sprung, she shouldn’t be able to get hurt on it.”
“We wouldn’t even tie an animal like this,” Lennard muttered.
Dr Thomas frowned but didn’t comment as he went about spreading a tarp and bedrolls on a piece of ground sheltered by boulders.
“So I guess we’re setting up camp here,” Lennard said as he wound the cord around the woman’s wrists.
“It’s not a great spot, but it’ll do. The boulders should offer enough wind shelter, and there’s no rain forecast for the night.”
“Is there a spare tarp we can wrap around her?” Lennard asked, straightening.
Dr Thomas wordlessly handed him a thermal foil sheet. Lennard rolled the woman’s limp body onto the sheet before wrapping it around her and tucking the edges under her. He had avoided examining her body closely until now. She was uncannily easy to manoeuvre onto the sheet. Her waist was willow-thin under her tattered shirt and her legs were sinewy. Blood had congealed in the webs of her hands and in thick smears on her arms and legs. Her mouth was slightly open and her matted hair clung to her mud-painted face. Even with her savage appearance, her expression was now serene. She twitched. Lennard backed away hastily.
They ate boiled beans and rice for supper. Lennard was too distracted to mind the tasteless starch. Dr Thomas stared straight ahead of him, mechanically chewing and swallowing. The camp was silent that night except for a muttered goodnight from Lennard, who knew well enough not to disturb Dr Thomas in thought.